One example of industrial e-learning as “on the web” not “of the web”

The following arises from some recent experiences with the idea of “minimum course sites” and this observation from @cogdog in this blog post

I have no idea if this is off base, but frankly it is a major (to me) difference of doing things ON the web (e.g. putting stuff inside LMSes) and doing things OF the web.

It’s also an query to see if anyone knows of an institution that has implemented a search engine across the institutional e-learning systems in a way that effectively allows users to search for resources in a course centric way.

The symptom

There’s a push on at my current institution’s central L&T folk to develop a minimum course site standard. Some minimum set of services, buttons etc. that will achieve the nirvana of consistency. Everything will be the same.

The main espoused reason as to why this is a good thing is that the students have been asking for it. There has been consistent feedback from students that none of the course sites are the same.

The problem

Of course, the real problem isn’t that students want everything to be the same. The real problem is that they can’t find what they are looking for. Sure, if everything was the same then they might have some ideas about where to find things, but that has problems including:

  • The idea that every course site at a university can be structured the same is a misunderstanding of the diversity inherent in course. Especially as people try to move away from the traditional models such as lecture/tutorial etc.
  • The idea that one particular structure will be understandable/appropriate to all people also is questionable.
  • Even if all the sites are consistent and this works, it won’t solve the problem of when the student is working on a question about “universal design” and wants to find where that was mentioned amongst the many artefacts in the course site.

The solution

The idea that the solution to this problem is to waste huge amounts of resources in the forlorn attempt to achieve some vaguely acceptable minimum standards that is broadly applicable seems to be a perfect example of “doing things ON the web, rather than doing things OF the web”.

I can’t remember the last time I visited a large website and attempted to find some important information by navigating through the site structure. Generally, I – like I expect most people – come to a large site almost directly to the content I am interested in either through a link provided by someone or via a search engine.

Broader implications

To me the idea of solving this problem through minimum standards is a rather large indication of the shortcomings of industrial e-learning. Industrial e-learning is the label I’ve applied to the current common paradigm of e-learning adopted by most universities. It’s techno-rational in its foundations and involves the planned management of large enterprise systems (be they open source or not). I propose that “industrial e-learning” is capable and concerned primarily with “doing things On the web, rather than doing things OF the web”.

Some potential contributing factors might include:

  1. Existing mindsets.
    At this institution, many of the central L&T folk come from a tradition of print-based distance education where consistency of appearance was a huge consideration. Many of these folk are perhaps not “of the web”.
  2. Limitations of the tools.
    It doesn’t appear that Moodle has a decent search engine, which is not surprising given the inspiration of its design and its stated intent of not being an information repository.
  3. The nature of industrial e-learning, its product and process.
    A key characteristic of industrial e-learning is a process that goes something like this
    1. Spend a long time objectively selecting an appropriate tool.
    2. Use that tool for along time to recoup the cost of moving to the new tool.
    3. Aim to keep the tool as vanilla as possible to reduce problems with upgrades from the vendor.
      This applies to open source systems as much as proprietary systems.
    4. Employ people to help others learn how to best use the system to achieve their ends.
      Importantly, the staff employed are generally not their to help others learn how to “best achieve their ends”, the focus definitely tends to be on ho to “best use the system to achieve their ends”.
    5. Any changes to the system have to be requested through a long-scale process that involves consensus amongst most people and the approval of the people employed in point d.

    This means that industrial e-learning is set up to do things the way the chosen systems work. If you have to do something that isn’t directly supported by the system, it’s very, very hard. e.g. add a search engine to Moodle.

All of these make it very hard for industrial e-learning to be “doing things OF the web”

People and e-learning – limitations and an alternative

So the last of three sections examining the limitations of industrial e-learning and suggesting an alternative. Time to write the conclusion, read the paper over again and cut it down to size.


The characteristics of the product and process of industrial e-learning (e.g. focus on long periods of stable use and the importance of efficient use of the chosen LMS) directly reinforced by and directly impact the people and roles involved with tertiary e-learning. This section briefly examines just four examples of this impact, including:

  1. The negative impact of organizational hierarchies on communication and knowledge sharing.
    The logical decomposition inherent in teleological design creates numerous, often significant, organizational boundaries between the people involved with e-learning. Such boundaries are seen as inhibiting the ability to integrate knowledge across the organization. The following comments from Rossi and Luck (2011, p. 68) partially illustrate this problem:
    During training sessions … several people made suggestions and raised issues with the structure and use of Moodle. As these suggestions and issues were not recorded and the trainers did not feed them back to the programmers … This resulted in frustration for academic staff when teaching with Moodle for the first time as the problems were not fixed before teaching started.

  2. Chinese whispers.
    Within an appropriate governance structure the need for changes to an LMS would typically need to flow up from the users to a central committee typically made up of senior leaders from the faculties, Information Technology and central learning and teaching. There would normally be some representation from teaching staff and students. The length of the communication chain for the original need becomes like a game of Chinese Whispers as it is interpreted through the experiences and biases of those involved. Leading to this impression reported by Rossi and Luck (2011, p. 69)
    The longer the communication chain, the less likely it was that academic users’ concerns would be communicated correctly to the people who could fix the problems.

    The cost of traversing this chain of communication means it is typically not worth the effort of raising small-scale changes.

    Not to mention killing creativity which just came through my Twitter feed thanks to @kyliebudge.

  3. Mixed purposes.
    Logical decomposition also encourages different organizational units to focus on their part of the problem and lose sight of the whole picture. An IT division evaluated on its ability to minimize cost and maximize availability is not likely to want to support technologies in which it has limited expertise. This is one explanation for why the leader of an IT division would direct the IT division’s representatives on an LMS selection panel to ensure that the panel selected the LMS implemented in Java. Or a decision to use the latest version of the Oracle DBMS – the DBMS supported by the IT division – to support the new Moodle installation even though it hasn’t been tested with Moodle and best practice advice is to avoid Oracle. A decision that leads to weeks at the start of the “go live” term where Moodle is largely unavailable.
  4. The perils of senior leadership.
    Having the support and engagement of a senior leader at an institution is often seen as a critical success factor for an LMS implementation. But when the successful completion of the project is tied to the leader’s progression within the leadership hierarchy it can create the situation where the project will be deemed a success, regardless of the outcome.

As an alternative, the Webfuse system relied on a multi-skilled, integrated development and support team. This meant that the small team was responsible for training, helpdesk support, and systems development. The helpdesk person handling the user’s problem was typically also a Webfuse developer who was empowered to make small changes without formal governance approval. Behrens (2009, p. 127) quotes a manager in CQU’s IT division describing the types of changes made to Webfuse as “not even on the priority radar” due to traditional IT management techniques. The developers were also located within the faculty, so they also interacted with academic staff in the corridors and the staff room. This context created an approach to the support of an e-learning system with all the hallmarks of a social constructivist, situated cognition, or community of practice. The type of collaborative and supportive environment identified by Tickle et al (2009) in which academics learn through attempts to solve genuine educational problems, rather than being shown how to adapt their needs to the constraints of the LMS.


Behrens, S. (2009). Shadow systems: the good, the bad and the ugly. Communications of the ACM, 52(2), 124-129.

Rossi, D., & Luck, J. (2011). Wrestling, wrangling and reaping: An exploration of educational practice and the transference of academic knowledge and skill in online learning contexts. Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development, 8(1), 60-75. Retrieved from

Tickle, K., Muldoon, N., & Tennent, B. (2009). Moodle and the institutional repositioning of learning and teaching at CQUniversity. Auckland, NZ. Retrieved from

Introducing the alternative

The last couple of posts have attempted to (in the confines of an #ascilite12 paper) summarise some constraints with the dominant product and process models used in industrial e-learning and suggest an alternative. The following – which probably should have been posted first – describes how and where this alternative comes from.

As all this is meant to go into an academic paper, the following starts with a discussion about “research methods” before moving onto describing some of the reasons why this alternative approach might have some merit.

As with the prior posts, this is all still first draft stuff.

Research methods and limitations

From the initial stages of its design the Webfuse system was intended to be a vehicle for both practice (it hosted over 3000 course sites from 1997-2009) and research. Underpinning the evolution of Webfuse was an on-going process of cycle action research that sought to continually improve the system through insights from theory and observation of use. This commenced in 1996 and continued, at varying levels of intensity, through to 2009 when the system ceased directly supporting e-learning. This work has contributed in varying ways to over 25 peer-reviewed publications. Webfuse has also been studied by other researchers investigating institutional adoption of e-learning systems (Danaher, Luck, & McConachie, 2005) and shadow systems in the context of ERP implementation (Behrens, 2009; Behrens & Sedera, 2004).

Starting in 2001 the design of Webuse became the focus of a PhD thesis (Jones, 2011) that made two contributions towards understanding e-learning implementation within universities: the Ps Framework and an Information Systems Design Theory (ISDT). The Ps Framework arose out of an analysis of existing e-learning implementation practices and as a tool to enable the comparison of alternate approaches (Jones, Vallack, & Fitzgerald-Hood, 2008). The formulated ISDT – An ISDT for emergent university e-learning systems –offers guidance for e-learning implementation that brings a number of proposed advantages over industrial e-learing. These contributions to knowledge arose from an action research process that combined broad theoretical knowledge – the principles of the ISDT are supported by insights from a range of kernel theories – with empirical evidence arising from the design and support of a successful e-learning system. Rather than present the complete ISDT – due primarily to space constraints – this paper focuses on how three important components of e-learning can be re-conceptualised through the principles of the ISDT.

The ISDT – and the sub-set of principles presented in this paper – seek to provide theoretical guidance about how to develop and support information systems for university e-learning that are capable of responding to the dominant characteristics (diversity, uncertainty and rapid change) of university e-learning. This is achieved through a combination of product (principles of form and function) and process (principles of implementation) that focus on developing a deep and evolving understanding of the context and use of e-learning. It is through being able to use that understanding to make rapid changes to the system, which ultimately encourages and enables adoption and on-going adaptation. It suggests that any instantiation built following the ISDT will support e-learning in a way that: is specific to the institutional context; results in greater quality, quantity and variety of adoption; and, improves the differentiation and competitive advantage of the host institution.

As with all research, the study described within this study has a number of limitations that should be kept in mind when considering its findings. Through its use of action research, this work suffers the same limitations, to varying degrees, of all action research. Baskerville and Wood-Harper (1996) identify these limitations as: (1) lack of impartiality of the researcher; (2) lack of discipline; (3) mistaken for consulting; and (4) context-dependency leading to difficulty of generalizing findings. These limitations have been addressed within this study through a variety of means including: a history of peer-reviewed publications throughout the process; use of objective data sources; the generation of theory; and, an on-going process of testing. Consequently the resulting ISDT and the principles described here have not been “proven”. This was not the aim of this work. Instead, the intent was to gather sufficient empirical and theoretical support to build and propose a coherent and useful alternative to industrial e-learning. The question of proof and further testing of the ISDT in similar and different contexts provides – as in all research aiming to generate theory – an avenue for future research.

On the value of Webfuse

This section aims to show that there is some value in considering Webfuse. It seeks to summarise the empirical support for the ISDT and the principles described here by presenting evidence that the development of Webfuse led to a range of features specific to the institution and to greater levels of adoption. It is important to note that from 1997 through 2005 Webfuse was funded and controlled by one of five faculties at CQUniversity. Webfuse did not become a system controlled by a central IT division until 2005/2006 as a result of organizational restructures. During the life-span of Webfuse CQU adopted three different official, institutional LMS: WebCT (1999), Blackboard (2004), and Moodle (2010).

Specific to the context

During the period from 1999 through 2002 the “Webfuse faculty” saw a significant increase in the complexity of its teaching model including the addition of numerous international campuses situated within capital cities and a doubling in student numbers, primarily through full-fee paying overseas students. By 2002, the “Webfuse faculty” was teaching 30% of all students at the University. Due to the significant increased in complexity of teaching in this context, a range of teaching management and support services were integrated into Webfuse including: staff and student “portals”, an online assignment submission and management system, a results upload application, an informal review of grade system, a timetable generator, student photo gallery, academic misconduct database, email merge facility, and assignment extension systems.

The value of these systems to the faculty is illustrated by this quote from the Faculty annual report for 2003 cited by Danaher, Luck & McConachie (2005, p. 39)

[t]he best thing about teaching and learning in this faculty in 2003 would be the development of technologically progressive academic information systems that provide better service to our students and staff and make our teaching more effective. Webfuse and MyInfocom development has greatly assisted staff to cope with the complexities of delivering courses across a large multi-site operation.

By 2003 the faculties not using Webfuse were actively negotiating to enable their staff to have access to the services. In 2009 alone, over 12,000 students and 1100 staff made use of these services. Even though no longer officially supported, it is a few of these services that continue to be used by the university in the middle of 2012.

Quotes from staff using the Webfuse systems reported in various publications (Behrens, 2009; Behrens, Jamieson, Jones, & Cranston, 2005; Jones, Cranston, Behrens, & Jamieson, 2005) also provide some insights into how well Webfuse supported the specific context at CQUni.

my positive experience with other Infocom systems gives me confidence that OASIS would be no different. The systems team have a very good track record that inspires confidence

The key to easy use of OASIS is that it is not a off the shelf product that is sooooo generic that it has lost its way as a course delivery tool.

I remember talking to [a Webfuse developer] and saying how I was having these problems with uploading our final results into [the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system] for the faculty. He basically said, “No problem, we can get our system to handle that”…and ‘Hey presto!’ there was this new piece of functionality added to the system … You felt really involved … You didn’t feel as though you had to jump through hoops to get something done.

Beyond context specific systems supporting the management of learning and teaching, Webfuse also included a number of context specific learning and teaching innovations. A short list of examples includes:

  • the course barometer;
    Based on an innovation (Svensson, Andersson, Gadd, & Johnsson, 1999) seen at a conference the barometer was designed to provide students a simple, anonymous method for providing informal, formative feedback about a course (Jones, 2002). Initially intended only for the authors courses, the barometer became a required part of all Webfuse course sites from 2001 through 2005. In 2007/2008 the barometers were used as part of a whole of institution attempt to encourage formative feedback in both Webfuse and Blackboard.
  • Blog Aggregation Management (BAM); and
    BAM allowed students to create individual, externally hosted web-logs (blog) and use them as reflective journals. Students registered their external blog with BAM, which then mirrored all of the students’ blog posts on an institutional server and provided a management and marking interface for teaching staff. Created by the author for use in his own teaching in 2006, BAM was subsequently used in 26 course offerings by 2050+ students and ported to Moodle as BIM (Jones & Luck, 2009). In reviewing BAM, the ELI guide to blogging (Coghlan et al., 2007) identified as
    One of the most compelling aspects of the project was the simple way it married Web 2.0 applications with institutional systems. This approach has the potential to give institutional teaching and learning systems greater efficacy and agility by making use of the many free or inexpensive—but useful—tools like blogs proliferating on the Internet and to liberate institutional computing staff and resources for other efforts.
  • A Web 2.0 course site.
    While it looked like a normal course website, none of the functionality – including discussion, wiki, blog, portfolio and resource sharing – was implemented by Webfuse. Instead, freely available and externally hosted Web 2.0 tools and services provided all of the functionality. For example, each student had a portfolio and a weblog provided by the site The content of the default course site was populated by using BAM to aggregate RSS feeds (generated by the external tools) which were then parsed and displayed by Javascript functions within the course site pages. Typically students and staff did not visit the default course site, as they could access all content by using a course OPML file and an appropriate reader application.

Even within the constraints placed on the development of Webfuse it was able to develop an array of e-learning applications that are either not present in industrial LMSes, were added much later than the Webfuse services, or had significantly reduced functionality.

Greater levels of adoption

Encouraging staff adoption of the Webfuse system was one of the main issues raised in the original Webfuse paper (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). Difficulties in encouraging high levels of quality use of e-learning within universities has remained a theme throughout the literature. Initial use of Webfuse in 1997 and 1998 was not all that successful in achieving that goal, with only five – including the designer of Webfuse who made 50% of all edits using the system – of 60 academic staff making any significant use of Webfuse by early 1999 (Jones & Lynch, 1999). These limitations were addressed from 1999 onwards by a range of changes to the system, how it was supported and the organizational context. The following illustrates the success of these changes by comparing Webfuse adoption with that of the official LMS (WebCT 1999-2003/4; Blackboard 2004-2009) used primarily by the non-Webfuse faculties. It first examines the number of course sites and then examines feature adoption.

From 1997 Webfuse automatically created a default course site for all Faculty courses by drawing on a range of existing course related information. For the official institutional LMS course sites were typically created on request and had to be populated by the academics. By the end of 2003 – 4 years after the initial introduction of WebCT as the official institutional LMS – only 15% (141) of courses from the non-Webfuse faculties had WebCT course sites. At the same time, 100% (302) of the courses from the Webfuse faculty had course sites. Due to the need for academics to populate WebCT and Blackboard courses sites, the presence of a course website doesn’t necessarily imply use. For example, Tickle et al (2009) report that 21% of the 417 Blackboard courses being migrated to Moodle in 2010 contained no documents.

Research examining the adoption of specific categories of LMS features provides a more useful insight into LMS usage. Figures 1 through 4 use the research model proposed by Malikowski, Thompson, & Thies (2007) to compare the adoption of LMS features between Webfuse (the thick continuous lines in each figure), CQUni’s version of Blackboard (the dashed lines), and range of adoption rates found in the literature by Malikowski et al (2007) (the two dotted lines in each figure). This is done for four of the five LMS feature categories identified by Malikowski et al (2007): content transmission (Figure 1), class interaction (Figure 2), student assessment (Figure 3), and course evaluation (Figure 4).

(Click on the graphs to see large versions)

Content Transmission Interactions
Figure 1: Adoption of content transmission features: Webfuse, Blackboard and Malikowski Figure 2: Adoption of class interactions features: Webfuse, Blackboard and Malikowski
(missing archives of most pre-2002 course mailing lists)
Evaluate Students Evaluate Courses
Figure 3: Adoption of student assessment features: Webfuse, Blackboard and Malikowski Figure 4: Adoption of course evaluation features: Webfuse, Blackboard and Malikowski

The Webfuse usage data included in Figures 1 through 4 only include actual feature use by academics or students. For example, from 2001 through 2005 100% of Webfuse courses contained a course evaluation feature called a course barometer, only courses where the course barometer was actually used by students are included in Figure 4. Similarly, all Webfuse default course sites contained content (either automatically added from existing data repositories or copied across from a previous term). Figure 1 only includes data for those Webfuse course sites where teaching staff modified or added content.

Figures 2 and 3 indicate Webfuse adoption rates of greater than 100%. This is possible because a number of Webfuse features – including the EmailMerge and online assignment submission and management applications – were being used in course sites hosted on Blackboard. Webfuse was seen as providing services that Blackboard did not provide, or that were significantly better than what Blackboard did provide. Similarly, the spike in Webfuse course evaluation feature adoption in 2008 to 51.6% is due to a CQU wide push to improve formative feedback across all courses that relied on the Webfuse course barometer feature.

Excluding use by non-Webfuse courses and focusing on the time period 2003-2006, Figures 2 and 3 show that adoption of Webfuse class interaction and student assessment features significantly higher than the equivalent Blackboard features at CQU. It is also significantly higher than the adoption rates found by Malikowski et al (2007) in the broader literature. It also shows adoption rates that appear to be somewhat higher than that found amongst 2008, Semester 1 courses at the University of Western Sydney and Griffith University by Rankine et al (2009). Though it should be noted that Rankine et al (2009) used different sampling and feature categorization strategies that make this comparison tentative.


Behrens, S. (2009). Shadow systems: the good, the bad and the ugly. Communications of the ACM, 52(2), 124-129.

Behrens, S., Jamieson, K., Jones, D., & Cranston, M. (2005). Predicting system success using the Technology Acceptance Model: A case study. 16th Australasian Conference on Information Systems. Sydney. Retrieved from

Behrens, S., & Sedera, W. (2004). Why do shadow systems exist after an ERP implementation? Lessons from a case study. In C.-P. Wei (Ed.), (pp. 1713-1726). Shanghai, China.

Coghlan, E., Crawford, J., Little, J., Lomas, C., Lombardi, M., Oblinger, D., & Windham, C. (2007). ELI Discovery Tool: Guide to Blogging. EDUCAUSE. Retrieved from

Danaher, P. A., Luck, J., & McConachie, J. (2005). The stories that documents tell: Changing technology options from Blackboard, Webfuse and the Content Management System at Central Queensland University. Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development, 2(1), 34-43.

Jones, D. (2002). Student Feedback, Anonymity, Observable Change and Course Barometers. In S. R. Philip Barker (Ed.), (pp. 884-889). Denver, Colorado: AACE.

Jones, D. (2011). An Information Systems Design Theory for E-learning. Philosophy. Australian National University. Retrieved from

Jones, D., & Buchanan, R. (1996). The design of an integrated online learning environment. In P. J. Allan Christie Beverley Vaughan (Ed.), (pp. 331-345). Adelaide.

Jones, D., Cranston, M., Behrens, S., & Jamieson, K. (2005). What makes ICT implementation successful: A case study of online assignment submission. Adelaide.

Jones, D., & Luck, J. (2009). Blog Aggregation Management: Reducing the Aggravation of Managing Student Blogging. In G. Siemns & C. Fulford (Eds.), World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2009 (pp. 398-406). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

Jones, D., & Lynch, T. (1999). A Model for the Design of Web-based Systems that supports Adoption, Appropriation and Evolution. In Y. D. San Murugesan (Ed.), (pp. 47-56). Los Angeles.

Jones, D., Vallack, J., & Fitzgerald-Hood, N. (2008). The Ps Framework: Mapping the landscape for the PLEs@CQUni project. Hello! Where are you in the landscape of educational technology? ASCILITE’2008. Melbourne.

Malikowski, S., Thompson, M., & Theis, J. (2007). A model for research into course management systems: bridging technology and learning theory. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 36(2), 149-173.

Rankine, L., Stevenson, L., Malfroy, J., & Ashford-Rowe, K. (2009). Benchmarking across universities: A framework for LMS analysis. Ascilite 2009. Same places, different spaces (pp. 815-819). Auckland. Retrieved from

Svensson, L., Andersson, R., Gadd, M., & Johnsson, A. (1999). Course-Barometer: Compensating for the loss of informal feedback in distance education (pp. 1612-1613). Seattle, Washington: AACE.

Tickle, K., Muldoon, N., & Tennent, B. (2009). Moodle and the institutional repositioning of learning and teaching at CQUniversity. Auckland, NZ. Retrieved from

The e-learning process – limitations and an alternative

And here’s the followup to the well received “LMS Product” post. This is the second section looking at the limitations of how industrial e-learning is implemented, this time focusing on the process used. Not really happy with this one, space limitations are making it difficult to do a good job of description.


It has become a maxim of modern society that without objectives, without purpose there can be no success, the setting of goals and achieving them has become the essence of “success” (Introna, 1996). Many, if not most, universities follow, or at least profess to follow, a purpose driven approach to setting strategic directions (Jones, Luck, McConachie, & Danaher, 2005). This is how institutional leaders demonstrate their strategic insight, their rationality and leadership. This is not a great surprise since such purpose driven processes – labeled as teleological processes by Introna (1996) – has dominated theory and practice to such an extent that it has become ingrained. Even though the debate between the “planning school” of process thought and the “learning school” of process thought has been one of the most pervasive debates in management (Clegg, 2002).

Prior papers (Jones et al., 2005; Jones & Muldoon, 2007) have used the nine attributes of a design process formulated by Introna (1996) to argue that purpose driven processes are particularly inappropriate to the practice of tertiary e-learning. The same papers have presented and illustrated the alternative, ateleological processes. The limitations of teleological processes can be illustrated by examining Introna’s (1996) three necessary requirements for teleological design processes

  1. The system’s behaviour must be relatively stable and predictable.
    As mentioned in the previous section, stability and predictability do not sound like appropriate adjectives for e-learning, especially into the future. Especially given the popular rhetoric about organizations in the present era no longer being stable, and instead are continuously adapting to shifting environments that places them in a state of constantly seeking stability while never achieving it (Truex, Baskerville, & Klein, 1999).
  2. The designers must be able to manipulate the system’s behaviour directly.
    Social systems cannot be “designed” in the same way as technical systems, at best they can be indirectly influenced (Introna, 1996). Technology development and diffusion needs cooperation, however, it takes place in a competitive and conflictual atmosphere where different social groups – each with their own interpretation of the technology and the problem to be solved – are inevitably involved and seek to shape outcomes (Allen, 2000). Academics are trained not to accept propositions uncritically and subsequently cannot be expected to adopt strategies without question or adaptation (Gibbs, Habeshaw, & Yorke, 2000).
  3. The designers must be able to determine accurately the goals or criteria for success.
    The uncertain and confused arena of social behaviour and autonomous human action make predetermination impossible (Truex, Baskerville et al. 2000). Allen (2000) argues that change in organizational and social setting involving technology is by nature undetermined.

For example, Tickle et al (2009) offer one description of the teleological process used to transition CQUni to the Moodle LMS in 2009. One of the institutional policies introduced as part of this process was the adoption of Minimum Service Standards for course delivery (Tickle et al., 2009, p. 1047). Intended to act as a starting point for “integrating learning and teaching strategies that could influence students study habits” and to “encourage academic staff to look beyond existing practices and consider the useful features of the new LMS” (Tickle et al., 2009, p. 1042). In order to assure the quality of this process a web-based checklist was implemented in another institutional system with the expectation that the course coordinator and moderator would actively check the course site met the minimum standards. A senior lecturer widely recognized as a quality teacher described the process for dealing with the minimum standards checklist as

I go in and tick all the boxes, the moderator goes in and ticks all the boxes and the school secretary does the same thing. It’s just like the exam check list.

The minimum standards checklist was removed in 2011.

A teleological process is not interested in learning and changing, only in achieving the established purpose. The philosophical assumptions of teleological processes – modernism and rationality – are in direct contradiction to views of learning meant to underpin the best learning and teaching. Rossi and Luck (2011, p. 62) talk about how “[c]onstructivist views of learning pervade contemporary educational literature, represent the dominant learning theory and are frequently associated with online learning”. Wise and Quealy (2006, p. 899) argue, however, that

while a social constructivist framework may be ideal for understanding the way people learn, it is at odds not only with the implicit instructional design agenda, but also with current university elearning governance and infrastructure.

Staff development sessions become focused on helping the institution achieve the efficient and effective use of the LMS, rather than quality learning and teaching. This leads to staff developers being “seen as the university’s ‘agent’” (Pettit, 2005, p. 253). There is a reason why Clegg (2002) references to teleological approaches as the “planning school” of process thought and the alternative ateological approach the “learning school” of process.

The ISDT abstracted from the Webfuse work includes 11 principles of implementation (i.e. process) divided into 3 groups. The first and second groupings refer more to people and will be covered in the next section. The second grouping focused explicitly on the process and was titled “An adopter-focused, emergent development process”. Webfuse achieved this by using an information systems development processes based on principles of emergent development (Truex et al., 1999) and ateleological design (Introna, 1996). The Webfuse development team was employed and located within the faculty. This allowed for a much more in-depth knowledge of the individual and organizational needs and an explicit focus on responding to those needs. The quote early in this paper about the origins of the results uploading system is indicative of this. Lastly, at its best Webfuse was able to seek a balance between teleological and ateleological processes due to a Faculty Dean who recognized the significant limitations of a top-down approach.

This process, when combined with a flexible and responsive product, better enabled the Webfuse team to work with the academics and students using the system to actively modify and construct the system in response to what was learned while using the system. It was an approach much more inline with a social constructivist philosophy.


Allen, J. (2000). Information systems as technological innovation. Information Technology & People, 13(3), 210-221.

Clegg, S. (2002). Management and organization paradoxes. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing.

Gibbs, G., Habeshaw, T., & Yorke, M. (2000). Institutional learning and teaching strategies in English higher education. Higher Education, 40(3), 351-372.

Introna, L. (1996). Notes on ateleological information systems development. Information Technology & People, 9(4), 20-39.

Jones, D., Luck, J., McConachie, J., & Danaher, P. A. (2005). The teleological brake on ICTs in open and distance learning. Adelaide.

Jones, D., & Muldoon, N. (2007). The teleological reason why ICTs limit choice for university learners and learning. In R. J. Atkinson, C. McBeath, S. K. A. Soong, & C. Cheers (Eds.), (pp. 450-459). Singapore. Retrieved from

Pettit, J. (2005). Conferencing and Workshops: a blend for staff development. Education, Communication & Information, 5(3), 251-263. doi:10.1080/14636310500350505

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Wise, L., & Quealy, J. (2006). LMS Governance Project Report. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne-Monash Collaboration in Education Technologies. Retrieved from

Ateleological travels in a teleological world: Past and future journeys around ICTs in education

In my previous academic life, I never really saw the point of book chapters as a publication form. For a variety of reasons, however, my next phase in academia appears likely to involve an increasing number of book chapters. The need for the first such chapter has arisen this week and the first draft is due by February next year, which is a timeline to give me just a little pause for thought. (There is a chance that this book might end up as a special edition of a journal)

What’s you perception of book chapters as a form of academic publication? Am particularly interested in the view from the education field.

What follows is a first stab at an abstract for the book chapter. The title for the book/special edition is “Meanings for in and of education research”. The current working title for my contribution is the title to this post: “Ateleological travels in a teleological world: Past and future journeys around ICTs in education”.


The Australian Federal Government are just one of a gaggle of global stakeholders suggesting that Information and Communication Technologies are contributing to the creation a brave, new, digital world. Such a digital world is seen as being radically different to what has gone before and consequently demanding a radically different education system to prepare the next generation of learners. A task that is easier said than done. This chapter argues that the difficulties associated with this task arise because the meanings underpinning the design of education systems for the digital world are decidedly inappropriate and ill-suited for the nature of the digital world. The chapter draws upon 15+ years of research formulating an Information Systems Design Theory for emergent e-learning systems for universities to critically examine these commonly accepted meanings, suggest alternate and more appropriate meanings, and discuss the potential implications that these alternate meanings hold for the practice of education and education research.

The plan

The plan is that this chapter/paper will reflect on the primary focus of my research over recent years and encourage me to think of future research directions and approaches. Obviously it will draw on the PhD research and in particular the Ps Framework and the presentation I gave at EdMedia a couple of years ago. It will also draw on the presentation I gave analysing the Digital Education Revolution as part of my GDLT studies this year.

And the thesis is complete, what’s next?

Just after 9:30pm last Wednesday I read an email from the Dean and Director of the ANU College of Business and Economics congratulating me on the fact that my thesis had been accepted without revision by the examiners and the institution. Needless to say that it was good news.

Celebrations, however, were somewhat muted and restricted to the above tweet and a couple of drinks the following night. Celebrations, like blogging, had become victim of circumstance. Circumstances that included: being a student teacher placed at a local high school 4 days a week and having to prepare and deliver an increasing number of lessons, at the same time having to complete University assignments, spend time with my family, and most recently recover from the flu.

Most of these are on-going tasks, but I thought I’d take a bit of time to reflect. After all it is Friday and I currently feel like I’m getting a little ahead on tasks, which I fear is more a false dawn.

The value of a thesis

Over recent years, especially the last couple, I’ve seen quite a bit written about the value of a PhD thesis. Leigh Blackall has embarked on a PhD his way after identifying several limitations with more traditional practice. Sarah Thorneycroft has been doing work around traditional academic publishing and then there’s the more recent news (mostly out of the US) about there being an over-supply of PhD graduates. And that’s just the few that I’ve gleaned while I’ve been doing an ostrich impression and focusing on getting the thesis done and thinking about teaching. I really should make the time at some stage to follow what these and other folk are doing.

So, while it’s finished, is there still value in a PhD? Especially since I’m moving away from academia into high school teaching?

This was a question that struck me really quite hard early in my high school prac teaching experience. During the first mathematics class I’d taught with one group of students who are largely disengaged. One of the students said, “I’ve never passed a math class.” She then proceeded to quite comfortably complete a set of fairly abstract algebra exercises with a minimum of assistance. It became obvious that there was a lot of room for value generation in this class. Value that could have some significant impact on the lives of students.

What value is there in a PhD? Certainly I don’t see mine ever having the same sort of impact as a good high school teacher. And that’s with a thesis that generated a journal paper that has a Google Scholar citation count of 197 and over 2000 visits to the thesis page on my blog.

The common refrain I hear in Academia is that the PhD is just the entry ticket into Academia. That it’s your on-going work that will make the contribution and have the impact. But frankly, my experiences and observations of academia and its recent trends are such that it is becoming harder and harder to have an impact beyond the pointless ticking of boxes, meeting of targets, mouthing of slogans, and the mounting of projects that are meant to look good at the time (i.e. in terms of fulfilling all of the previous important tasks of academia) while failing to have any lasting impact.

Add to this the observation that my thesis is within the Information Systems discipline which appears to me to be a dying discipline. A discipline suffering from the growing persuasiveness of information technology in turn reducing the importance and relevance of specialist IS researchers. A disease that seems to be infecting many IT specialist disciplines, but is especially difficulty for IS and its attempt to distinguish itself from other business disciplines and also the IT discipline. That said, being actively engaged with attempts to increase the relevance of the Information Systems/Technology disciplines would be an interesting and challenging project.

In the end, the value of my PhD comes down to a purely personal value. After taking so long to complete the thesis, I have indeed completed it. I’ve proven that I could finish it.

High school teaching

While, as described above, I can see the great impact a quality high school teacher can make, I can also see how difficult it might be. I wonder about whether or not I have the energy required to make the impact. Even though my experience is limited, I can already see the mismatch between the nature of schools, their curriculum and the needs of the students. NAPLAN and QCS testing is driving an increased focus on intellectual pursuits, somewhat like the point Sir Ken makes in the well known video below. Interestingly, this video was shown at the weekly staff meeting at the school I’m currently placed at.

Yes, there is some moves to broadening school with the offering of vocational education as part of high school. But the pressure of NAPLAN seems to be particularly limiting on mathematics. Especially within the constraints of existing curriculum and resources such as textbooks. The kids that are prepared to fit within the expectations of school are a joy to work with and get a lot out of this approach. But there are other kids who, for a variety of reasons, don’t fit and subsequently are ill-served by the system. Trying to help those students within the constraints of the system sounds like a recipe for frustration and burn out.

Seems like I’ve found the challenge for what’s next.

On the potential flexibility of open source LMS and its limits

Today a mate posted to his blog about a small project he’s involved with. The context of this project seems to be a good opportunity to comment on the potential flexibility of open source LMS and the limits of that flexibility within an institutional context. It’s also an attempt to link it back to the design theory described in my thesis (if you want more of the theory behind the following, look at the thesis).

The following uses Moodle as an example, but I believe that similar limitations exist regardless of the open source LMS. This is in part because a significant limit on the flexibility is not the LMS, but instead the institutional governance processes and associated factors..

The need

In this case, the need is to send students an email with a link to a survey. The link has been personalised based on the students’ membership of Moodle groups. They survey asks them to answer questions based on their experience of a group task.

My initial thought would be that this sounds like something Moodle should be able to do. Given the increasing emphasis on group related work I doubt that this is a novel requirement. So, there might be something in Moodle that can do this, however, based on my limited knowledge of Moodle I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.

I believe that there might be the functionality within Moodle to do each of the components of this task. There is probably a way to send emails to members of a group. There might even be a way to customise that email to some extent (there is a bulk email facility in Moodle 1.9, but, from memory, it seems somewhat limited). There is also probably a way to do a group-based survey (a MCQ might be the obvious solution).

But I doubt that there is an easy way to combine these separate functions so that the group email can automatically include the link to the group’s MCQ/survey.

Doing it outside of Moodle

There is another interesting and related comment in post describing this project

hile not ideal in that it is a separate system from the LMS, it is hoped that this trial will help inform the development of a Moodle module that will perform the same function albeit in a more integrated and seamless way

Over 6 months ago, I used to work at the institution being described. Based on that out-of-date experience, my initial guess is that “doing it outside of Moodle” is deemed to be easier than engaging with Moodle and the institutional IT department.

Two limits of open source LMS flexibility

Drawing on the above examples, I’d like to propose at least two, somewhat related limits on the flexibility of open source LMS:

  1. Inflexible institutional structures and processes.
  2. The difficulty of producing/the absence of scaffolding conglomerations.

Inflexible institutional structures and processes

Modifying an enterprise implementation of Moodle effectively and efficiently is hard. You don’t want your institution’s Moodle instance to be unavailable to students and staff because a code change has broken something drastically. The Moodle code-base is itself quite difficult to get a handle on. Not overly difficult, but a non-Moodle developer can’t simply front-up and start making changes quickly. They need to be enculturated into the Moodle way, to learn what works and what doesn’t. Such a requirements means that someone who is able to modify Moodle is often a scarce and expensive resources. Especially within most universities who often don’t have someone dedicated as a Moodle developer.

To address this difficulty and also to CYA (some might argue that CYA is the major reason) institution’s spend a lot of time and effort setting up appropriate governance structures. The theory being that these are objective and rational ways to manage the difficult process and the expensive and scarce resource.

The trouble is that the difficulty and expense involved means that it becomes difficult for such processes to effectively engage in “small” problems like this one. i.e. problems that don’t actually require development of any significantly new functionality or large-scale modules. It just needs a few minor changes or wrappers around existing functionality. For example, the requirement above could possibly be solved (the following is an example description given off the top of my head without any investigation as to whether this would work) by

  • Modifying the Moodle quiz function to populate a database table linking groups to URLs for group specific quizzes.
  • Modifying the existing Moodle bulk-email facility (or perhaps adding a wrapper around it like I did with bim) to use this database table to send personalised emails to group members.
  • Perhaps add a new quiz report that allows viewing/comparing within/across groups.

For a variety of reasons traditional institutional LMS policies and processes are too heavy-weight to respond to this sort of need. Instead, in order for something like this to be considered, it has to be blown up into some institutional priority. e.g. a system to support peer and group-based assessment for the entire institution. A project that will require a significant amount of time doing a needs analysis,……..

A big project that requires lots of resources is expensive enough to be efficiently considered by the governance and related processes. Small projects are too cheap to be efficiently considered by the expensive institutional processes.

In the hardware/operating systems field, this is a problem known as starvation or indefinite postponement. The situation where a task is forever ignored because of a flaw in the priority mechanism.

So, I’m proposing that the institutional implementation of open source LMS end up suffer from the “starvation limit” on flexibility.

The need for rapid development of scaffolding conglomerations

The need in this case, at least to me, sounds like an example of what I termed scaffolding, context-sensitive conglomerations. Rather than necessarily requiring a brand new Moodle module or block, this problem sounds like something that actually needs to combine the functionality from a number of existing Moodle services. Something that conglomerates the lower-level functionality provided by Moodle into something that better meets this higher-level need.

A large part of the popularity of Moodle arises from its modularity. A feature that allows for the easy development of lots of new functionality. Something that increases the flexibility of Moodle.

The problem is that this flexibility arises, in part, from keeping these different modules separate. It’s the separation that makes it easy to add a new function without (theoretically) worrying about how it will effect the other modules. They are meant to be independent. The current problems moving to Moodle 2.0 is an example of the problems that arise from dependency. All the third-party modules depend on the Moodle core, so when the Moodle core changes all the third-party modules have to change.

A strict separation between modules makes it more difficult to combine parts of these different modules into a scaffolding conglomeration.

So, I’m proposing that open source LMS have an “over reliance on module independence” that limits their flexibility.

It’s really all about balance

I can already here proponents of traditional institutional IT governance processes or strict software engineers bemoaning the problems of not having institutional governance or of module dependence. And I do agree. There are dangers and problems. I’m not suggesting that they should necessarily be done away with.

I do, however, think that too often the balance has gone too far one way. There needs to be more recognition of a need for balance the other way. A bit less of a focus on the objective, best ways of technical implementation, and a bit more on the subjective, best ways to improve learning and teaching.